“White Man: He sit down, walk like hell.”
That was how one Native Alaskan described Ed Jesson riding a fixed gear bicycle down the frozen Yukon River in the winter of 1900. How a man with practically no supplies and the simplest of bikes could ride over a thousand miles in the dead of an Arctic winter boggles our twenty-first century minds until we remember that for Ed Jesson, and hundreds of his fellow Klondike “wheelmen” (their name for themselves) there was gold, “haunting and haunting, luring them on as of old.” Jesson was racing from Dawson City to Nome, Alaska in the hope of being amongst the first to stake a claim on the gold-laden, frozen beaches of the Bering Sea. More so than any Olympian cyclist, the Klondike wheelmen were chasing the gold. They also were fueled by a quaintly Victorian faith in the bicycle. Pierre Berton wrote in his seminal Klondike Fever that “the velocipede was to the 1890s what the television set was to the 1950s…Such was the faith in the bicycle that thousands were prepared to believe that this was the ideal way of crossing the mountain passes.”
Fast forward to 2017: For more than a dozen years a new breed of intrepid winter cyclists have tackled the challenge of riding the Iditarod and other arctic trails. And while technology has certainly advanced in the intervening century, technology doesn’t replace tenacity. The self-titled “stampeders” of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush were nothing if not tenacious. (Although it’s entirely possible that our historical view is skewed, since only the successfully tenacious had the subsequent opportunity to record their acts of derring do. Before they were able to pen memoirs, the unsuccessful wheelmen of the North froze to death in blizzards, or were swallowed up by rotten ice.)
Three northern wheelmen stand out: Ed Jesson, Max Hirschberg and B.H. Svendson. Each faced mechanical hurdles that would defy tax their counterparts a hundred years later. In 2003 a team of three cyclists profiled in National Geographic attempted the same journey, and found that “the cold does weird things.” At forty below zero tubes spontaneously deflate, grease freezes and tire pumps explode. Even today, crashing a bike in the frigid cold risks snapping cranks and pedals. Rubber tubes and tires freeze solid. Bike chains snaps. Riding the Yukon is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. When Ed Jesson broke a pedal on his bike in 1900, he first carved replacements out of wood, each of which only lasted a day. After buying nuts and bolts, he was able to hack a more durable pedal out of sheet metal with the assistance of a local missionary.
Jesson, Hirschberg and Svendson traveled light. Just as modern, minimalist touring cyclists rely upon their credit cards to buy a hot meal and a warm bed, Klondike wheelmen carried “pokes” of gold to buy services at the road houses that were stationed every twenty miles or so along the trails they were using. Hirschberg wrote,
“My poke held gold dust worth $1,500 and my purse contained silver and gold coins. Next to my skin around my waist I carried a belt with $20 gold pieces that had been stitched into it by my aunt in Youngstown, Ohio, before I had left to go to the Klondike.”
In 21st Century terms, Hirschberg was carrying over $40,000. Even at the exorbitant prices of the Gold Rush, he was adequately covered.
And they weren’t breaking new trail, either. They were following the tracks packed down by dog sled teams. While their tires look comically narrow to us today, less than an inch and a half wide, they fit perfectly into the grooves cut by the sled runners, giving the men an easy trail to ride. Jesson wrote,
“The sleds had scraped most of the snow off the [icy trail], and left it in fine condition for the wheel as the rubber tire stuck to this trail very well and all I had to do was look out for the icy cracks, which were very numerous.”
The Klondike wheelmen traveled with a bare minimum of gear. Jesson records that,
“The day I left Dawson, March 2, 1900 was clear and crisp, 30 degrees below zero. I was dressed in a flannel shirt, heavy fleece-lined overalls, a heavy mackinaw coat, a drill parka, two pairs of heavy woolen socks and felt high-top shoes, a fur cap that I pulled down over my ears, a fur nosepiece, plus fur gauntlet gloves.
On the handlebars of the bicycle I strapped a large fur robe. Fastened to the springs, back of the seat, was a canvas sack containing a heavy shirt, socks, underwear, a diary in waterproof covering, pencils and several blocks of sulfur matches. In my pockets I carried a penknife and a watch.”
“For most of Yukon history, bicycling was a means of winter transportation rather than a competitive summer pastime,” wrote John Firth in Yukon Sport: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, “The greatest risk was severe frostbite. The advantage was the cost.” Keeping a team of sled dogs alive in the frozen north required an enormous expenditure of time, resources and money. While folks thought Ed Jesson “was crazy for riding a wheel,” especially since he owned a good dog team, he countered that he didn’t have to cook dog food for the bicycle at night, and on especially good days he could cover one hundred miles: three or four times farther than a dogsled.
Today’s fat bikers do not have the benefit of riding well-packed trails, or finding a warm roadhouse every twenty miles along the trail, and are forced to carry far more gear on bikes far bigger and heavier than those of the Gold Rush wheelmen. In 2003 National Geographic published an account of three cyclists who followed in the tracks of Ed Jesson and Max Hirschberg from Dawson City to Nome, and found that they couldn’t compete:
“Obviously things have changed,” Kevin Vallely, one of the fat bikers, said. “There was much more traffic on the trail when he traveled, but [their] speed has stunned us. It’s possible, I guess, but we’re a little suspicious…This is incredible—possibly too incredible.”
As Robert Service, bard of the Yukon, wrote,
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
Wesley Cheney leads Klondike bike tours for Sockeye Cycle Co. in Skagway, Alaska. He earned his Eagle Scout Badge with Troop 216 in Springfield, Vermont, biked from London to Rome via the Route Napoleon, sailed with the USS Kearsarge to Equatorial Africa, earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Old Dominion University, completed the final Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200km Brevet, and most recently delivered freaky fast sandwiches for Jimmy John’s in Norfolk, Virginia. He regularly contributes questions to The Thomas Jefferson Hour, plays the ukulele and the flugelhorn, reads the New Testament in German, and prefers to wear a kilt.